The expectation gap

There’s been a lot of talk since Saturday about the value of the CFA’s ‘Prepare, stay and defend or leave early’ policy and whether or not people were given adequate warning about fires in their area. When you add that to the ‘greenie bashing’ that’s going on by some commentators it looks to me like the Victorian DSE and CFA are being lined up to be crucified over this tragedy. While I have no doubt that these organisations will find ways to improve themselves with the benefit of hindsight, I think that there is a broader problem with what our expectations of emergency services are and the effort we make to understand our own responsibilities.

You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard the CFA messages over the past few months about having an adequate fire plan, it’s been a regular fixture on the commercial networks as well as the ABC, and yet in the aftermath of the fire some of the survivors who have spoken to on ABC radio have expressed amazement that they could have been affected because they lived ‘in town’. In this situation we clearly have a problem, the CFA has put out a carefully constructed message, but there are people who do not take it on board because they do not believe that they need to pay attention. How do we change that attitude? Footage on the TV of people fighting fires in shorts and thongs, with a garden hose, is fairly conclusive proof that not only do plenty of people not have a fire plan, but they don’t even understand the basics of how to protect yourself when confronted by fire.

This morning on Radio National, Fran Kelly interviewed Russel Rees, the Chief Officer of the CFA, and asked him whether there were adequate warnings given. Mr Rees pointed out that on Thursday and Friday the CFA had issued fairly explicit warnings for the entire state regarding the weather conditions on the weekend, which should have been a signal to people to activate their fire plans. Clearly this didn’t happen everywhere, with people caught out at the last minute trying to decide whether to fight or flee.

It seems to me that we have a pretty big disconnect in our communication about bushfire, like the CFA and the general public are speaking different languages, it’s something that you see in plenty of areas when experts or professionals in a particular field try to explain a concept to a person unfamiliar with the terminology, sadly in this scenario the results of not receiving the message can be fatal. With the unpredictability of fire we will never be able to achieve a situation where we can send every household a warning saying ‘You have 2 hours to leave safely, the fire will be there an hour after that’, it simply cannot be done. In addition to this, any technological solution will always be at the mercy of things like phone reception, power availability, computer failure and other unforeseen problems. When the CFA advise people to leave early, they mean before there is any danger from the fire at all, whereas most people seem to believe that a ‘just in time’ philosophy is early enough.

The inconvenience of having to leave your home for a few days each summer my indeed have to become part and parcel of living on bushland fringes. While there is talk of forced evacuations being bought in, they are notoriously difficult to enforce, with people refusing to leave their property under almost any circumstances. In addition to this, someone has to take the responsibility for ordering those evacuations, taking into account the potential mobility problems of everyone in the affected area, which means that erring on the side of caution involves getting everyone out for days at a time. No-one will want to risk delaying an evacuation order and being responsible for people’s deaths, so there will be many false alarms, which only worsens the problem of people refusing to leave. I wonder how many people in fire affected areas would have consented to an evacuation order last Thursday? Even in the scenario that they all did heed the warning, where would we house the entire non-metrolpolitan population of the state for three or four days at a time?

We seem to believe that a fire is something that we will see coming, that a fire truck will come along to fight it and then we can decide what to do, the reality is frighteningly different. The head of the NSW Fire Brigade, Greg Mullins, spelt it out earlier this week “We can’t be the safety net all the time. Our resources are stretched and we won’t be there,”. This has always been the case, which is why local volunteer brigades began in the first place, but it is a message that needs restating as our cities and towns push further into bushland and our climate becomes drier and hotter. There is no remedy for bushfire, no preventative measure available, regardless of what Miranda Devine and the Burn & Bulldoze Brigade might have you believe, the only thing we can do is try to educate ourselves better about how to live with bushfire threat. It is tragic that it takes the loss of so many lives and communities to remind ourselves that we are largely at nature’s mercy and that it is only with continuous efforts to mitigate risk that we can expect to survive unscathed.

7 thoughts on “The expectation gap

  1. Education does not always work – take a look at the number of school dropouts – so we need to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

    The CFA have never provided a pro-forma for a fire plan. We need one and we need an authorisation process through the local CFA before we are given the right to stay and defend.

    Compulsory completion of the CFA Minimum Skills program – maybe during HSC – for all people living in bushfire prone areas might help. Not only would we be better educated about fire and fire plans, those who stay to defend their homes would ease the demands made of our overstretched CFA brigades.

  2. I agree that there is a need for us to look after those who cannot protect themselves, but the problem seems to be that this has become people’s default position.

    I think that if you live in Yackandandah, Dederang or any of the small settlements in this area or on the fringes of Myrtleford or Beechworth, every single house would need firefighting equipment as part of their fire safety plan. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is not the case though.

    A question to you Greg, how many people in the King Valley do you think would be adequately prepared to defend their homes? How many do you think could be if they were better informed?

  3. Greg – I like your idea of completing the CFA minimum skills program. That knowledge needs to come to the city as well. Life-saving information like this should be spread everywhere.

    And although not the only answer, education does work quite well.

    I started Prep in 1984 – the first summer term since the Ash Wednesday fires. I can still vividly recall the video about fire we all watched. I remember a… TV commercial? showing people in a car as a fire approached, showing them getting down behind the front seats with a blanket over them.

    And with the events of this last week, I dredged up my knowledge of how to survive a bushfire, and it was surprisingly comprehensive. Having never ever joined the CFA or the SES, I can only assume that somewhere during the almost 20 years I spent growing up in Tallangatta that this knowledge seeped in from somewhere, be it a poster I read at school, or a video or something…. That’s what we need to recreate. Not just for the people who move to the bush, either. EVERY Australian – or Victorian at least – should know this stuff like the back of their hand. We should also drill into people that the purpose of the CFA is primarily to stop the fire. Not to save people or property (though the heroic bastards will do their best to do that as well).

    Maybe along with energy efficiency ratings, houses should also be given a ‘Fire Resistance’ rating…. so people will know how likely it would be that that house would survive a bushfire, and what they could do to improve that rating. I think also the CFA and the DSE should look again at the language they’re using to disseminate information. Aware, Alert, Under Threat… they get kinda meaningless, kinda complicated. Something simple and direct like “A fire today will kill you if you stay in the area”.

    I can’t agree with forced evacuation. People should have the right to defend their house. If fireplans and fire safety has been followed to the utmost degree, then I do believe that most houses (in a standard bushfire situation) are perfectly defendable. Like I said above, the CFA is not responsible for saving your house, and I dread to think of what would happen to insurance premiums if houses were left undefended during the bushfires which visit up with alarming regularity.

    Sorry. I’ve gone on a bit….

  4. Dave – I could not name a single person – in a high risk area (I am excluding dairy farms, etc. where pasture is predominant) – who would be adequately prepared to defend their home by themselves in a crisis.

    I joined the CFA to find out the fire risk associated with my 10 acres. In the 2006 fires, where we were under direct threat, even with CFA experience and having made provisions for such an event, I was still found wanting when it was put to the test.

    I set up all my defences, roof sprinklers, gutter blocks to hold water, Diesel generator pump backup for electric pumps etc., and then looked for the weaknesses. I found:-
    I was relying on plastic 3/4″ hoses that could melt.
    My pump delivery system is 2″ polypipe some of which is above ground.
    One end of the house had no taps to attach hoses to and, of course, that was the direction the fire would have come in by.

    As a result of that evaluation, our fire plan was to evacuate.

    My point is that only through CFA training, I had enough facts to determine that one-out, there was not enough of me to manage all the equipment at my disposal. The only safe alternative was to evacuate.

  5. This is an excellent post, Dave. I think that from cities or even large regional centres like where I am, we get a really simplistic version of the issues involved here. I don’t have much to add, but, great post!!

  6. I agree, Dave, but in this instance the predictions made a day or two earlier were spot on – i.e. the conditions were expected to be the “worst in history” – yet the same ‘stay & defend’ message was put out.

    The authorities also failed to learn from history that the areas at greatest risk were in a arc around the outer fringes of Melbourne and they issued no specific warning for those areas and, instead, simply said it was a ‘Statewide alert’. Worse still they clearly implied that the main danger would be in areas well removed from Melbourne like around here.

    I don’t think it would have been unrealistic for the authorities to suggest on Friday that anyone living in the forested fringes of Melbourne should consider coming into the city for a day to visit relatives in the safer suburbs or just go sit on a beach until this ‘one day in a generation’ was over. It would have saved a lot of lives.

    Brumby even said that people should just “stay at home”. I realise he was referring to the elderly and heat stress but it sent a mixed message.

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